'Knowledge about Language' Revisited: The Impact of Teachers' Linguistic Subject Knowledge on the Teaching of Writing

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In the second of two articles drawing on findings from a large-scale study carried out in secondary schools, Debra Myhill, Susan Jones, Helen Lines & Annabel Watson explore the classroom impact of teachers' linguistic subject knowledge.

The recent Ofsted subject report, Moving English Forward, highlights the impact of teachers' linguistic knowledge on students' learning. In outstanding practice:

Teachers have a very good understanding of the English language, including differences between talk and writing, and address these issues directly in lessons. The technical features of language are very well taught. (Ofsted, 2012, p.16)

We would argue that grammar is about far more than the 'technical features' of language, but our own recent research does confirm OFSTED's emphasis on good understanding of language. In our "Grammar for Writing' research, conducted in 31 secondary schools, we wanted to know if teaching contextualised grammar improved students' writing. We found that it did--students in the intervention group improved their writing scores (as measured in pre and post-test writing samples) by 20% over the year compared with 11% in the comparison group. But we also found that teachers' linguistic subject knowledge (LSK) was a significant factor in determining the success of the grammar intervention. Students in classes with teachers with lower LSK made less improvement than those with teachers with higher LSK.

We measured LSK by giving teachers a 'grammar test' which scored their ability to identify word classes and syntactical structures in an authentic text--an extract from Pride and Prejudice. Scores on this test were very evenly spread, ranging from 35% to 92%, with a mean result of 60%. Teachers' first degrees were quite varied, including 8 who had a degree in subjects other than English. Only one had a degree with a linguistics component: unsurprisingly, this teacher scored 86%. Otherwise, there was no discernible correlation between first degree and LSK. Given that older teachers may have been taught grammar as part of their own education, we analysed the results to see if there was any relationship between years of teaching experience and linguistic knowledge, but there was no strong evidence of this: the four highest scores did include three teachers with more than 28 years of experience, but the second lowest score was from someone who had taught for 23 years.

A correlation between the teacher's linguistic subject knowledge and student outcomes is predictable. Indeed, the relationship between the two is highlighted in the supplementary subject-specific guidance for inspectors of English (Ofsted, 2010). In outstanding teaching:

   Teachers demonstrate high standards in their own use of
   language and they model the processes of reading and
   writing powerfully to help pupils make real progress in
   their own work.

Andrews suggests that it is 'likely to be the case that a teacher with a rich knowledge of grammatical constructions and a more general awareness of the forms and varieties of the language will be in a better position to help young writers (Andrews 2005, 75). Of course, linguistic subject knowledge involves more than the ability to identify structures and use grammatical terminology. In the 'Grammar for Writing' study, we were interested in how teachers applied their technical knowledge. Myhill (2005) argues it is axiomatic that meaningful, focused and relevant attention to grammar in the context of teaching writing requires teachers who are confident both about what they are teaching and how to teach it.

An effective pedagogy for writing includes knowing when to draw attention to a specific feature, being able to explain a grammatical concept clearly, and demonstrating how it might enhance the writing being undertaken. It also requires an understanding of the bigger picture of writing development and progress. In the context of the introduction of grammar into the curriculum in New Zealand, Gordon (2005: 63) cites one consequence of teachers' weak LSK: 'because of their own lack of knowledge about language' they focused on superficial error in students' writing and failed to acknowledge students' 'writing virtues'--their developing syntactic maturity. …